It had been a close call, but I was almost out: out of the kitchen, out of the house, and out of trouble, at least for this. I turned the doorknob slowly, as the door to the garage squeaked sometimes. I didn’t want to explain the grocery bag I carried to my wife, Mary.
“Dad, what on earth are you doing?” It was Julie, our only daughter and youngest child. She stood behind me, hands on her hips.
“Good Lord, kid. Not so loud,” I hissed and moved the bag behind me. “Are you trying to give me a coronary? When did you get into town?”
Julie, working on her Masters, was two years into research in plant pathology and looked like a young Audrey Hepburn. It had taken her five years to get her BA. A Biology major and English minor was a tough mix. None of the classes had overlapped and German and Russian courses she couldn’t resist taking hadn’t helped.
“I drove over to help Mom with a home permanent, but why are you sneaking out of the house and what’s that bag your trying to hide?”
I glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mary wasn’t in earshot. “Keep it down, will you. I didn’t know your mother baked cookies today, so I picked up a dozen of my favorites, double-chocolate-chunk with pecans, when I dropped by the store on my way home from work. Your mother will think I’m insulting her cooking, and I don’t need more trouble.”
“Yeah. She told me all you got her for Valentine’s Day was a lame card. Couldn’t you at least read the card before you signed it.”
“Picky, picky, picky. It had hearts on it. I’ll be back in a minute,” and I slipped out the door and into the garage. I tucked the cookies under the passenger seat of my car. Mary wouldn’t seen them and I could snack on my way to work in the morning.
Julie was sitting at the dining room table, chin in hand and looking pensive, when I returned. I poured a cup of decaf tea in the kitchen, grabbed one of the fresh cookies, and took a seat across the table from her. “Well, how’ve you been? How’s your research going?”
“Slowly. The darn…” Her eyes started to sparkle, she giggled and grinned at me. “You know, some things just fell into place. I saw Jeff walk into trouble with Suzan every week when I lived with them during summer quarter. He never saw it coming and spent two days a week apologizing. But you? Boy, you’re smooth. You came in, saw the fresh cookies and dodged the bullet. How do you do it?”
It was nice to know Julie appreciated caution, dissembling, and subterfuge; the manly domestic arts, as I call them. I leaned back in my chair. “Forty years of practice. And I’ve got Ed’s help.”
Julie glanced toward the bedroom where Mary was preparing for the permanent. The door was closed. Julie inclined her head toward me. “Who’s Ed?” she whispered.
“Ed and Carol. They’re a couple your mother and I see occasionally. No matter how badly I mess up on Valentine’s Day, Ed does worse. And Carol talks to your mother at least once a week, so I’ve managed to look good every Valentine’s Day, by default.
“That reminds me, after yesterday’s card fiasco, I have to talk to Ed about his Valentine’s Day. He was as excited as a kid on his first prom date when I saw him at church last week. He saod his present this year would erase all memories of his disasters.”
“But, wouldn’t that make your card look even worse?”
“Honey, every good idea is a Titanic in Ed’s hands. He’s devoted to Carol; he’s good hearted and smart, but man, he’s a walking disaster when it comes to Valentine’s Day. He’ll be drowning his sorrows at Murphy’s by noon tomorrow, and I’ll be at his elbow, learning from his experience. Now, go help your mother.”
I dropped by Murphy’s, my favorite restaurant and bar, the next afternoon. Ed was where I’d predicted he’d be. I took a stool next to him at the bar and ordered a diet Coke. He cut me off as soon as I tried to speak.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” He drained his glass and set it on the bar with a thump.
“Just thought I’d ask. You looked so—“
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.” He glowered at me, turned to the bar maid, ordered another brandy Manhattan, and buried his face in his hands.
A basketball game was on TV. Ed groaned as the refs missed a foul, although he wasn’t watching the game. His head was still in his hands. “It was supposed to be a romantic surprise,” he moaned.
I waited for more, but he lapsed into a sullen silence. So I pried. “That’s what you said it would be. A surprise valentine.”
Ed had been desperate to make up for last year. He’d ended up on the couch every night for a week after giving Carol a box of candy in his own special way. Damned if I know how you can go wrong with candy, but I overheard Carol telling Mary, “There’s a difference between a nut cluster and cluster of nuts. That’s what Ed and his brothers are: a cluster of nuts. They’re all crazy; utterly without common sense.”
Ed sipped his Manhattan, sighed, and put his face back in his hands.
I watched the game for a quarter and tried again. “Not a surprise?”
“Jesus, was it a surprise.” He shook his head. “I tried to warn her.”
“It was too late.”
This would take patience. I tried again after the next beer ad. “What was too late?”
“My warning. They showed up before she could change.”
“Who showed up?”
“The quartet. The goddamned Barber Shop Quartet.”
“At your house?”
“Of course at my house, you nitwit. That’s what I paid them for. They were the surprise.”
I bought another round and waited for Ed to relax. I tried again after a short guy, if you can call six-foot short, threw a Hail-Mary shot from mid-court and nailed it. Ed even pulled himself out of his misery to watch the re-play. That’s when I asked, “Why are you ticked-off if you paid them to show up?”
“I didn’t know Carol was going to put that gop on.”
“A greasy, greenish goo. She spread it all over her face. Defoliant, beauty cream – how the hell should I know what it was. She looked like a damned witch doctor.”
Ed ordered another Manhattan. I’d never seen him drink that much, but he’s big, six-two and 220 pounds. I figured he could hold it.
Ed was probably handling this better than Carol. She’s a lady who has every hair in place when she’s in public and is one of the few women I’ve seen, at least these days, wearing white gloves. I tried to imagine what she’d looked like, or worse, how she’d felt.
“She must have been a colorful figure,” I offered.
“Worse. I’d taken the day off, but we had nothing planned for the day, at least nothing Carol new about. God knows why, but she decided to clean the drier vent. I tried to stop her, but when she makes up her mind…”
“She changed into an old T-shirt and torn shorts and went to work. She was soaked in sweat and it was obvious she wasn’t wearing a bra by the time the doorbell rang. Lint stuck to her face, hair, clothes—looked like she'd lost a fight with a sheep.”
I bit my lip. “When the quartet showed up?”
“Drop it. Just drop it.”
I waited until the first ad as we watched the Channel 9 evening news. “Did she like the Valentine?”
“She sat on the sofa and the quartet stood around her in a semi-circle. They were dressed to the hilt–matching sport coats, slacks: the whole nine yards. Halfway through “Tell Me Why”, she started to sniffle. She tried to cover herself with a crocheted throw she keeps on the couch and was bawling by the time they launched into ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’. “
“Sounds like it hit a soft spot. You finally pulled off a great Valentine’s Day,” I said. My card was really looking bad.
“Hardly. When she stopped crying long enough to catch her breath, she turned to me and yelled, ‘You #$%X& bastard, how could you do this to me’.”
“Wow! I’ve never heard Carol swear.”
“Neither had the quartet. They beat it out of the house – left the door wide open.”
“Fang, her toy poodle, shot out the door and down the block. It took us three hours to find him. Fool dog bounced up and down, happy as hell, when we got him in the car. He was plastered with mud and stunk like a rotten fish. The idiot rolled on the living room carpet and jumped on the new couch as soon as he got back in the house.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I thought while I nursed a beer. Ed was like a gambler, every year doubling down on the previous Valentine’s Day, hoping to recoup from the last one. The more elaborate his plans became, the more likely they were to go wrong. It had to stop.
“Have you ever thought of giving Carol something simple and cheap; maybe a card and a hug. It’s hard to go wrong with that. Sometimes ‘less is more’.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like modern architecture.”
That shut me up. As I tried to figure out where that came from, Ed perked up and asked me how my Valentine’s Day went.
“It was less and more; the more was like yours. Who the hell gives Valentine’s Day cards to their sister, anyway?”
“I’ve never done it, but I don’t have a sister. Why’d you ask?”
“I don’t know who gives them, but I found a company that makes ‘em. The greeting card aisle at the grocery store is near the bakery section, right next to where they have the cookies. It used to be a safe backstop for me, a place of last resort for birthdays and anniversaries. Lately, it’s a damned mine field.”
“Mary’s mad?” Ed smiled, clearly happy to be asking the questions.
“Fuming. Do you think they might cool off if we took them out to dinner? A good dinner in a restaurant they like–who knows? They can compare stories and ignore us like they did last year.”
Ed rubbed his chin and considered this for a moment. “Let’s let them choose the time and place. It might work better if Mary called Carol to suggest it. Carol isn’t in a mood to listen to me.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And next year, you give something simpler, and I’ll read the damned card first.”
“Isn’t that what we said we’d do last year?”